Opinion - Meredith Baldwin: curb urban sprawl, create complete communities

Posted: Thu, Jun 24, 2021

Originally published in the Chronicle Herald on June 9, 2021.

Halifax Regional Plan review a golden opportunity to reshape suburban growth.

Quite a few things have changed since 2014, when HRM last updated its Regional Municipal Planning Strategy (regional plan, for short). 

In the last few years, Halifax has seen a pandemic, a one per cent vacancy rate and soaring house prices, a plastic bag ban, hurricane Dorian, youth climate marches, and a tentative yes to a CFL stadium. 

The regional plan is HRM’s highest-level planning document that sets the vision, strategy, and direction for the municipality. The regional plan we see today was first created in 2006 to guide the city into 2031, but to keep it relevant, HRM is called to regularly update (review) it.

We are now in the second review that this regional plan will see, and it is essential that we, and those in power, recognize the opportunity ahead of us. This is our last major chance to update Halifax’s plans for regional growth until a new regional plan is created in 2031. 

By 2030, the International Panel on Climate Change notes that global CO2 emissions will need to fall by about 45 per cent from 2010 levels to avoid catastrophic effects of climate change, requiring “rapid and far-reaching transitions in land, energy, industry, buildings, transport and cities.” 

So as HRM updates its regional plan, we must ask: “Is this the ambitious vision and planning that will carry us through a just and green transition?” 

Making up nearly 50 per cent of Nova Scotia’s entire population, covering the same amount of land as all of Prince Edward Island, and as the largest-and-growing city on Canada’s East Coast, Halifax holds significant responsibility to be a leader in building climate-friendly, resilient and livable communities. 

The opportunities — and risks — ahead of us in the regional plan review can be boiled down to where and how we grow and where and what we choose to protect.  

Neighbourhoods with public transit, stores, community facilities and more densely planned housing can have significantly lower per capita CO2 emissions than suburban developments that lack access to transit, businesses and facilities.

Sprawling growth leaves us with unnecessarily high emissions, affects our health, costs more and paves over wilderness. Sprawl has been linked with a higher prevalence of diabetes, cardiovascular disease and obesity. Along with the climate and health benefits of curbing sprawl, HRM could save $3 billion over 18 years, simply by concentrating growth.  

Not everyone needs to live in downtown Halifax. We need different places to live that meet our various needs. To support this, we must create complete communities where sprawling suburbs were once built. This means that our neighbourhoods see more concentrated growth, which will, in turn, allow for strong public and active transit opportunities, essential services, enabling diverse and thriving local businesses, and healthier and connected communities. 

Halifax’s last Housing Needs Assessment found this is exactly what most Haligonians want. We want to be able to afford housing that is closeby to work and the services we need (like a grocery store, community centres, a nice park and places to meet friends and family).  

The past year has only further exposed the need for affordable housing in HRM. We are seeing rental prices that were once available in the regional centre only obtainable in far-out suburbs. Yet the costs of living in poorly planned suburbs, with minimal or inexistent access to active and public transit and other essential services, are significant. Moving “affordable” housing to the suburbs is not the answer. Concentrating growth and building complete communities is only a piece of the housing crisis, but it is an important one. 

The added benefit of building complete communities is that we also protect what lies around them. In HRM, we are fortunate to have nature and wilderness in our city. Yet many of our beloved wilderness areas are not protected from development. Countless cities have created greenbelts and growth containment zones to protect the places that matter and avoid sprawl. 

HRM created the Halifax Green Network Plan, with council approving the final version in 2018, as a vision and roadmap to plan for Halifax’s ecological network. However, nearly three years after its approval, the majority of the plan is not guiding our growth. The Halifax Green Network could inform the development of our complete communities — protecting recreation opportunities, wildlife habitat and corridors, and mitigating climate disasters by protecting green spaces like Blue Mountain Birch Cove Lakes. 

The regional plan review is our opportunity to protect the Halifax Green Network before it’s paved over by sprawl.  

Creating complete communities and protecting our green network isn’t too much for us to ask. But what it does require HRM to start saying no to the developments that will not serve us today and into the future. Between 1992 and 2014, Halifax nearly doubled in size, while our population only increased by a fifth. The Halifax Housing Needs Assessment also noted that despite a shift in demand for housing in urban centres, planning applications suggest that significant development is still occurring in farther-out suburban areas. Despite having growth targets to keep 25 per cent of growth in the urban centre, 50 per cent in suburban areas, and 25 per cent in rural areas (these are not ambitious), Halifax is still seeing excessive suburban growth. With the regional plan review ahead of us, we have the opportunity to shape our future to match our needs and require development that builds livable, complete communities.  

As a community member of HRM, you can play a big role in making the necessary changes happen. Our regional plan is here to support us. Reach out to your councillors and participate in the regional plan review’s public engagement. The first stage of public consultation is open until Friday, July 2 at shapeyourcityhalifax.ca/regional-plan. The Ecology Action Centre will keep our community looped in to the process so you don’t miss key opportunities to have your voice heard and build a better city. 

Meredith Baldwin is the sustainable cities co-ordinator with the Ecology Action Centre


See posts related to